The Short Attention Span News Generation, brought to you by Twitter

Two major news events in the past week have shown again why Twitter is a major player in the distribution of news. In the streets of Tehran, Twitter had a crucial role in getting out news and events pertaining to the questionable free elections. As their counterparts in China found out, the Iranian government can shut out the mainstream media, but is almost powerless in stopping the populace from sending out Tweets and pictures of the violent government crackdown on the street.

And in California, the news of the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson took life on Twitter even before the mainstream news outlets were able to get a handle on it. The celebrity web site TMZ, upon getting first notification that Jackson was transported to a hospital, immediately tweeted it out to its followers. Like a wildfire, those followers retweeted TMZ’s message to their followers, and so on, as so on. Just about everyone knew that Jackson had died by the time AP sent out its alert some two hours later.

The phenomenon was noted by an AP reporter in New York, who was on a bus when a passenger got on and announced that Jackson had just died. Immediately, the reporter said, everyone around her pulled out their smartphones to confirm what they heard and pass it along to their friends.

Media guru Jeff Jarvis compares Twitter’s power in breaking news to the power cable news had in its heyday. He points out it’s sad that a dead celebrity is capable of pushing out a cultural revolution. However, noting that Iran still trends on Twitter, he has hope.

What this is more indicative of, however, is the very issues that is killing newspapers and, in a sense, substantive journalism. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and social media in general are becoming the news source for the short-attention span news generation. The news is short, to the point and relevant. No ups, no extras.

What it lacks is substance. You get who, what, when, where … and possibly how. What is missing is why. But the SASN generation isn’t necessarily interested in why … especially if it goes beyond 140 characters.

As Jarvis points out, this is no different from what cable news has done for decades, the only difference now is that viewers lose their interest long before the cable outlets do. He is correct that folks today would rather discuss Jackson’s death with their friends than with Al Sharpton. Consumers have been experted to death by cable news…they’d rather analyze on their own terms with folks they know.

What does this mean for substantive news? It will continue, but will likely play a secondary role to immediacy in the coming years. That means news organizations must be prepared to do both in order to survive. They can no longer hang their hat on analysis and in-depth news. The audience will be there, but it will be smaller and those who grew up enjoying depth and breadth die off.

But the SASN generation … like the Headline News generation … is fed quickly and constantly. Once the essentials have been exhausted, they will move on to a new alert. Like Don Quixote, social news will slay a windmill until they grow weary, then travel along the plain to the next windmill.

They are the next audience news organizations will need to focus on. But the SASN generation won’t know it, because I lost them 6 paragraphs ago.


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